Mayoral runoff candidate Lori Lightfoot got one of the biggest contributions toward her first-ballot victory last month from a “dark money” organization that’s been able to hide where it got the cash for Lightfoot’s campaign.
The recently formed organization, called Change Chicago, gave $40,000 to Lightfoot’s bid in December, providing a significant boost as she won the most votes in the Feb. 26 election and got a spot in the April 2 runoff.
The big check to the Lightfoot mayoral campaign is the only contribution that the group has ever made to a political candidate or cause, according to campaign-finance disclosure reports.
According to Change Chicago website and Lightfoot’s campaign, the group is a 501(c)4 organization. That’s the part of the federal tax code that allows nonprofit, “social welfare” groups to make political contributions without having to reveal where they got the money.
For Lightfoot – who’s promising a “new progressive vision for the city” and blasting runoff opponent Toni Preckwinkle as a machine politician – the help from Change Chicago means she received crucial support at a time when she was trailing badly in the polls through a shadowy manner most commonly associated with conservative, corporate interests.
This 501(c)4 method of advocacy is derided loudly and frequently by progressives and Democrats who push for campaign-finance reform. That’s because unlike traditional political action committees, the dark money groups don’t have to disclose their donors, so the public can’t find out where all their interests lie.
Among the most deeply funded of the dark money groups are those with connections to the right-wing, billionaire Koch brothers and some conservative groups in Illinois. Other 501(c)4 organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars at the federal level in recent election cycles.
Lightfoot’s opponent in the runoff, Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, says she has not received any campaign funding from 501(c)4 groups and she strongly criticizes Lightfoot for taking the contribution from Change Chicago.
“My opponent portrays herself as progressive and this is antithetical to progressive values,” Preckwinkle told WBEZ on Wednesday. “By definition, these dark money PACs are not transparent, so it’s hard to know who’s attempting to influence the race or the next mayor.”
A spokeswoman for Lightfoot’s campaign declined to comment this week, and she referred all questions to Coco Soodek, a corporate lawyer from the North Side who formed Change Chicago.
But Soodek had already said she did not wish to comment when WBEZ reached her by phone and asked about Change Chicago’s funding sources.
“Maybe I’d like to take a pass,” Soodek said.
An ‘educational’ and ‘civic’ group
State records show Soodek brought Change Chicago into being in July, after Lightfoot began running for mayor.
Soodek has been active in advocating for gay rights and other liberal causes for years, once hosting a radio show and verbally sparring on the Fox News Channel with right-wing host Jeanine Pirro.
Soodek personally contributed $250 to Lightfoot’s mayoral bid last June and also donated more than $600 in food, drinks and staff for a campaign fundraiser, state election board documents show.
In filings with the state when it was formed, Change Chicago listed three other board members besides Soodek. All three have made small contributions to Lightfoot’s campaign.
At the time, Soodek told state officials that Change Chicago was dedicated to “educational” and “civic” purposes, records show.
On the homepage for Change Chicago, there’s a brief explanation of the organization’s principles. The mission statement is simple: “We love Chicago. But Chicago is broke. That’s where we come in.”
The group says it has “two reasons” for being: “To help you learn about what’s really going on in Chicago” and “To promote policies and actions that can really Change Chicago.”
Without offering many specific proposals, the website goes on to bemoan problems with the school system, violent crime and “corrupt city government,” and it ends with a call for a handful of reform measures, including term limits for the mayor and aldermen and a ban on lobbying by former city officials.
There is an option on the website to make contributions to the group – which are not tax-deductible – but no indication at all of who has given money to Change Chicago or is involved in its operation.
Lightfoot’s No. 2 contributor in February election
The $40,000 contribution to Lightfoot on Dec. 3 remains among the largest checks her campaign has reported getting.
Besides the more than $300,000 that the candidate has put into her own bid, Lightfoot’s campaign got only one check before the first-round election that was bigger than Change Chicago’s contribution. That was a $50,000 donation from Mary Dempsey, who worked with Lightfoot in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.
Lightfoot has reported raising a total of about $3.1 million. But most of the biggest contributions have been made since the rookie candidate finished first in the 14-way election on Feb. 26 with about 17.5 percent of the vote.
The Lightfoot campaign has been heavily outspent by Preckwinkle, who’s being backed by several major labor groups, including the service employees and teachers unions.
Because no candidate received a majority of the vote last month, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will go head-to-head in the runoff election next month for the right to replace Rahm Emanuel, who’s been mayor since 2011.
Lightfoot is a former federal prosecutor who was the head of the city’s police board under Emanuel. She was one of the first candidates to challenge Emanuel, and she stayed in the race after he announced in September that he would not run for a third term.
In the February election, Lightfoot won many North Side wards that at many times in the past have been supportive of reform-themed campaigns.
Before Emanuel dropped out of the running, in May, Lightfoot heavily criticized him for the activities of a 501(c)4 nonprofit with close ties to the mayor. Lightfoot said Emanuel’s Chicago Public Schools chief, Janice Jackson, should not have participated in an ad touting the school system that was paid for by the pro-Emanuel group, called Progress Chicago.
“She’s appearing in a political ad to support the mayor’s re-election effort,” Lightfoot told WLS-890 AM. “Now they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s a 501(c)4 and all the legal [inaudible], but the truth is if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. This is a political ad.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.